New research project to analyze cognitive training programs for older adults

A new research project at Penn State aims to evaluate how cognitive training programs can maintain the brain and everyday functioning in older adults.

Funded by a $1.85 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the project will examine the mechanisms of effective cognitive training programs and lay the foundation for a larger, multi-site trial.

According to principal investigator Lesley Ross, associate professor of human development and family studies and affiliate faculty member of Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging, the planning project will focus on assessing two conceptually-driven, home-delivered, cognitive training programs, and examine how the science used in these programs is translated into real-world environments.

The project will involve a diverse group of 250 adult participants, ages 50-90, at two sites, the Bronx, New York, and State College, Pennsylvania. The participants will be divided into between one and four different training-group combinations or to a control group.

“Participants will complete the training at home using online games. We will measure cognitive, psychological and lifestyle changes throughout the study using mobile assessments,” Ross explained. “We'll also measure biomarkers and some of the participants will undergo fMRI testing as well.”

After the results are collected, researchers will begin the process of determining which type of training, or combination of trainings, is most promising and for which groups.

“By analyzing the effects of different mechanisms on changes in cognition, lifestyle and mood, we can determine how different trainings affect different groups of people so these interventions can be tailored,” said Ross.

The two-year project will help to lay the foundation for the next larger trial, similar to the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) multi-site trial project. The NIH-funded ACTIVE trial includes 20 years of data demonstrating effectiveness of cognitive training.

During the first ACTIVE trial, researchers from Penn State and other participating institutions observed long-term changes among participants, including reduced dementia, safer driving skills and reduced health expenditures. However, the researchers did not look at mechanisms for these changes, making Ross’s project uniquely situated to provide valuable data to inform cost-effective behavioral interventions.

Additional funding for the project was provided by Penn State’s Social Science Research Center and the Center for Healthy Aging.

Other Penn State researchers on the project are Martin Sliwinski, director of the Center for Healthy Aging and professor of human development and family studies; Alyssa Gamaldo, assistant professor of human development and family studies; Jacqueline Mogle, assistant professor of nursing; Linda Collins, director of the Methodology Center and distinguished professor of human development and family studies; Zita Oravecz, assistant professor of human development and family studies; and Christopher Engeland, associate professor of biobehavioral health.

Researchers from other institutions include Sara Czaja, Cornell School of Medicine; Kristina Visscher, University of Alabama at Birmingham; Richard Lipton, Mark Wagshul, Molly Zimmerman, Michael Lipton and Mindy Katz, Albert Einstein College of Medicine; George Rebok, John Hopkins; John King and Dana Plude, National Institutes of Health, NIA; and consultants Jason Hassenstab, Washington University in St. Louis; Rich Jones, Brown University; Jeffrey Kay, Oregon Health & Science University; and Cindy Lustig, University of Michigan.